I love a good story, well told. A powerful narrative can puncture our cynical veneers and inspire us to imagine, to empathize, even to act.

But in these polarized political times, I’m noticing how the stories we tell ourselves ​— ​or were told once upon a time and never bothered to fact-check ​— ​can have a profound impact on the way we carry ourselves through the world. And the assumptions we make about others.

You see it in the current immigration debate, as otherwise reasonable Americans shriek at one another, “They’re here to take our jobs!” “No, they’re criminals in the drug- and sex-trade!” “Nonsense, they’re asylum seekers escaping treacherous lands!” Surely the folks knocking at our borders include all of these archetypes and more ​— ​but our inner narratives, once written, resist editing. So the shrieking persists.

I saw this Story Scenario play out in another fascinating fracas recently. I happened upon a friend in the always-perilous Trader Joe’s parking lot. Having loaded groceries into her car and loath to lug her shopping cart all the way back to the store, she asked my opinion on the Age-Old Grocery Store Debate: Must we always return the cart?

Intrigued, I posed the question on social media ​— ​and so swift and vehement were the responses, you’d have thought I asked if we must always wipe after visiting the loo. The majority of the 120 comments were from The Proud, Pious Cult of Perpetual Cart Returners, deliriously grateful for the opportunity to finally tell the world about the deeply held supermarket morals that undergird their identity.

“I return carts to the designated spots with the optimistic fervor of being the change I want to see in the world,” sermonized one. “I have always used my willingness to take my cart back as a measure of my spiritual fitness,” preachified another. Other Return-It narratives ranged from our roles in an organized society (“This is not the Wild West. We are not uncivilized beasts!”) to health (“The walk is good for you!”) to economics (“The cost of collecting stray carts will be passed on to the consumer!”). One guy not only returns his to the corral ​— ​but takes time to organize the other carts snarled in the rack so as to “clean up the chaos.”

Entrenched and self-righteous, the Always-Returners spewed invectives at everyone else: Lazy slugs. Thoughtless. Piggy. Sanctimonious. Selfish. Doofus. “Only entitled a-holes don’t return their carts,” declared one as fact.

But then ​— ​hark! ​— ​the stories began to spill forth from the other side. Sure, some confessed to stashing their carts in out-of-the-way spots merely because they’re pressed for time ​— ​the corner of a generous parking space, a flowerless cement planter. Other narratives, though, put a significant dent in the first group’s virtue ​— ​like a runaway cart dinging the damned door of a lily-white Prius.

“I used to work at a grocery store and the absolute highlight of every day was collecting the stray carts,” insisted one fellow, with several others agreeing. “When there were no carts to gather, we were very sad.”

Folks with injuries said they always appreciate finding a cart near their car; they use it for balance or help walking through the lot. Others feel rude walking the cart back if someone’s waiting for their parking spot. (Now who’s the thoughtless piggy?)

So who’s right? Most folks agreed that it’s ideal to offer your empty cart to someone heading into the store ​— ​and offer to take one from someone else on your way in. It’s “good kartma,” as one friend put it. Even for lazy slugs.

More important, though ​— ​and as long as we’re being good citizens ​— ​can we all summon the discipline to examine the snarl of stories corralled in our heads? The entrenched narratives that guide our behavior and the assumptions we make about things with which we have only a passing familiarity? Imagine how productive our conversations would be if we headed into debates like we head into supermarkets: with an agenda, perhaps, but room in our carts for unexpected discoveries we might find along the way.


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